17 April, 2024

The Restoration Movement: A History of Separation

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by | 1 March, 2024 | 3 comments

By Richard J. Cherok 

Among the guiding principles that set the Restoration Movement in motion was a concern for Christian unity. In The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, Thomas Campbell’s seminal work that gave direction and guidance to the fledgling movement, Campbell declared division among Christians “a horrid evil, fraught with many evils.” He further stated that Christian division “is antichristian . . . antiscriptural . . . antinatural . . . [and] productive of confusion and of every evil work.” Yet, the fellowship of believers that emerged with these initial ideas has experienced two major separations and a number of smaller ones as well. This essay will explore the pivotal issues that gave rise to the divisions that have left the Restoration Movement with three distinct communities of faith. 

Perhaps the crowning event of the Restoration Movement’s early history arose out of two meetings in the Lexington, Kentucky, area surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s holidays of 1831–1832. In these meetings, the Christian reform movements of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell were introduced to one another and their similarities were accentuated. At the second of the two meetings, Stone and “Raccoon” John Smith, an evangelist who represented the Campbell reform efforts, shook hands to symbolize the unification of these two Christian fellowships. While there were no actual governing bodies to be merged or to declare this union accomplished, the participants in these assemblies exerted a great deal of energy proclaiming that the two communions had become one.  

As the unity announcement made its way among the churches, the Disciples of Christ*, as Alexander Campbell’s community of churches were known, both accepted and celebrated the merger. The “New Light” Christians associated with Barton Stone, however, were somewhat less enthusiastic about the union, and a significant number of their congregations refused to participate in the newly established fellowship. Nevertheless, the Christian body that emerged from the accord resulted in the fastest-growing Christian fellowship in 19th-century America. Yet, the seeds of disunion were quickly planted.  

FIRST DIVISION 

The first major division within the Restoration Movement has often been described as a separation over the use of instrumental music in worship. And, while the use of musical instruments was certainly the most visible representation of this fissure, the roots of this division ran much deeper than the mere use of musical instruments in worship. 

Soon after ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, differing philosophies of interpretation emerged that would impact both the nation and the church. The Jeffersonians of the South favored a “strict constructionist” view of the document, insisting that only those powers explicitly enumerated within the Constitution are permissible for the new government to act upon. The Hamiltonians of the North, however, promoted a “loose constructionist” view that argued for adherence to the constitutional mandates while permitting freedom to act (or not act) upon issues that are not prohibited or addressed within the Constitution.  

As these interpretive philosophies became more prominent within their respective sections of the nation, they were also adopted as regional standards for explaining Scripture. So, while the loose constructionists of the North saw freedom in practices that are neither prohibited nor addressed in Scripture (e.g., instruments in worship or missionary societies), the strict constructionists of the South contended that the silence of Scripture (specifically of the New Testament in matters related to the church) is a prohibition of such actions. Thus, the churches of the South eschewed the use of instrumental music in worship, missionary societies, and other “innovations” that are not expressly identified as New Testament commands or precedents.  

This strict constructionist approach to Scripture was confirmed in the thought of many Southern members of the Restoration Movement after Jesse B. Ferguson, a prominent minister with the Nashville (Tennessee) Church of Christ, nearly destroyed the congregation when he accepted some of the religious trends of his day (including Spiritualism). The ramifications of the Ferguson calamity in the 1850s had a lasting impact upon two of the South’s most respected voices. Nashville-based evangelist Tolbert Fanning and his protégé, David Lipscomb, who later edited the South’s most influential magazine, The Gospel Advocate, became staunch objectors to any “innovations” added to the direct commands and precedents established in Scripture. 

The tensions of the Civil War both widened the gap between the Northern and Southern churches and reinforced each region’s resolve to hold more firmly to their distinctive practices and characteristics. As a result, the 40 years that followed the Civil War were marked with heated controversies over the propriety of “innovations” within the movement. What had once been dismissed as personal opinions became points of conflict and contention, and perhaps no issue was more inflammatory during these years than the musical instrument question. 

When Lewis L. Pinkerton introduced a melodeon into his church in Midway, Kentucky, in 1849, few people noticed or cared about his use of a musical instrument in worship. In the years after the Civil War, however, as Northern churches welcomed the accompaniment of musical instruments into their congregations, the churches of the war-ravaged South grew increasingly resistant to the acceptance of this “innovation” into the movement. 

As the years of conflict and controversy mounted, the U.S. Census Bureau served as the conduit by which the noninstrumental churches of the South separated themselves from the Disciples of Christ. In 1906, as the bureau prepared for a special Census of Religious Bodies, agent S.N.D. North contacted David Lipscomb to inquire about the relationship of the noninstrumental churches to the Disciples of Christ. Lipscomb responded by insisting that the Churches of Christ in the South are a distinct fellowship and requested that they be listed separately from the Disciples of Christ in the 1906 census, thus formalizing the first major division of the Restoration Movement. 

SECOND DIVISION 

Around the start of the 19th century, a “new theology” known as Modernism or theological liberalism originated in German universities. Using the newly formed techniques of biblical higher criticism to study the Bible, liberal scholars questioned the traditional authorship of the biblical books, the plausibility of miracles, the veracity of Scripture, and even the very notion of Scripture as God’s revelation to humanity. By the latter half of the 19th century, liberalism had found its way into the leading American universities and was filtering down into many American churches.  

Theological liberalism grew quickly within the Disciples of Christ, largely because it was endorsed by many prominent Disciple leaders and gained acceptance in many colleges within the movement. Along with the growth of liberalism came a questioning of the long-established Disciple belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation. The resultant practice of “open membership” began to appear in both the churches and on the mission field, and it rapidly became a volatile issue among Disciples. By the early years of the 20th century, it was readily apparent that the Disciples were polarizing into conservative and liberal factions, and fault lines were beginning to emerge.  

An additional disturbance that widened the gap between conservative and liberal Disciples was a proposal to unite the movement’s three missionary societies into a single organization. While liberals argued that merging the missionary societies into the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS) would provide financial and organizational efficiency, the conservative Disciples feared the society would be too powerful and have no accountability to the churches. Amid a contentious struggle, the missionary societies (and six other benevolent agencies) were combined to form the UCMS in 1920. 

Within a few years of the UCMS’s beginning, conservatives were angered to learn that the society accepted open membership in the mission field and entered comity agreements that divided missionary fields into denominational regions. When Leslie Wolfe, a veteran missionary in the Philippines, refused to relocate his successful ministry from Manila because a comity agreement excluded Disciples from working in that region, the UCMS discontinued his funding in April 1926. Conservative Disciples affiliated with the Christian Standard and the Christian Restoration Association, however, raised the financial support necessary to sustain Wolfe’s ministry in Manila. The ensuing effort to subsidize Wolfe’s ministry without the benefit of a missionary society led to a conservative network of direct-support missionaries. 

In November 1926, conservatives brought Wolfe to the International Convention of the Disciples of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, with the hope that his story might expose the liberal activities of the UCMS. The convention’s liberal leadership, however, permitted Wolfe to speak only for a few brief minutes and his claims were quickly disregarded. As a response to the liberal’s slight to their concerns, the conservatives, led by P.H. Welshimer, minister of the First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio, developed a rival convention that would focus on preaching, teaching, and fellowship. This new convention, the North American Christian Convention, held their initial gathering in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1927. 

Although numerous differences were apparent well before the Memphis convention, the events at Memphis created a chasm between the conservatives and liberals that grew increasingly wider and deeper in the years that followed. By the 1960s, when the liberals authorized the Commission on Restructure to explore the possibility of reorganizing the Disciples of Christ along denominational lines, a de facto separation between the conservatives and liberals had already occurred. So, when the Disciples voted to approve the plan of Brotherhood Restructure at the 1968 International Convention, creating the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, many conservative churches requested that their congregations no longer be listed in the Yearbook of the Disciples of Christ. 

At roughly the same time, it became apparent that candidates for military chaplaincy within the movement required approval from the liberal leadership of the Disciples. This prompted the conservatives to appeal to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board for the creation of a Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ to sanction chaplaincy candidates from conservative churches. After the Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission was approved in 1969, an additional request was made for a separate listing of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ in the Yearbook of American Churches. The acceptance of the separate listing in 1971 formalized the division between the Disciples of Christ and the more conservative Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. 

OBSERVATIONS 

One might easily criticize the Restoration Movement for emphasizing the importance of Christian unity while experiencing two major divisions within its own heritage. As a fellowship of autonomous churches with no overarching headquarters or controlling leadership outside of the individual congregation, however, the Restoration Movement has proven rather resilient to divisions. A thousand different autonomous churches may espouse a thousand differing opinions within the Restoration Movement, yet the movement has managed to prevent fellowship fractures from arising with every divergent concern. And while our desire should be to fulfill Jesus’ prayer (John 17) for unity based upon the truth of God’s Word for the purpose of winning the world to him, it may be too easy to overlook the vast number of divisions that have occurred within most denominations as one points out the rifts of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  

*The descriptive titles “Disciples of Christ,” “Church of Christ,” and “Christian Church” were used interchangeably after the merger of the Stone and Campbell Movements. After the divisions of the 20th century, they became more exclusive identifiers of the various groups within the movement. 

Richard J. Cherok serves as professor of history at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and as executive director of Celtic Christian Mission. 

3 Comments

  1. Tim Taft

    Very good article. Most brothers and sisters in our churches today are likely unaware of their historical heritage. Thank you for writing this Mr. Cherok as this is something that we can easily share with them.

  2. jim e montgomery

    Article filled in a few gaps in this student’s knowledge of the RM. Thank you for a lucid concise presentation. It’s a high spot hitter well done! Congregants today know nothing of the RM’s History because the pulpiteers don’t know much/anything about it. Many/most are trying to keep seats in the seats and dollars in the bank and their own rep/street cred for advancement. Thus, no such teaching leaving the choice between KnowHistory v. NoHistory to come down entirely on the ‘No’ side. No surprise here when recalling my second degree of separation eyewitness testimony of a generation ago of the Pulpit Committee of a MidWest ‘megachurch’ which contained members suggesting any hotdog pulpiteer from wherever would be a suitable preacher candidate/preacher – regardless of schooling or past pastorates from any denomination! Come to Indianapolis and I’ll drive you past the building! Kudos to Mr. Cherok for his fine work, herein …

  3. Keith P Keeran

    Rick,
    Thank you for sharing this excellent overview of our history. Many in the church today are unfamiliar with the origins of this 19th Century movement, not to mention the persistent struggle of the ancients who were always working to restore and renew the faith and obedience of the church in their day and were always seeking unity among believers. We don’t tell the stories of any of these champions of unity very often or very well. The unity for which Jesus prayed has gone largely unanswered since the First Century. Unity remains a going concern for every generation. Do we even hear the church pray for unity anymore? Perhaps we should begin there. There is no better example of how to pray for unity than the example of he whose church it is.

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